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Only the Rich Can Play

How Washington Works in the New Gilded Age

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Oct 5, 2021




In a Winners Take All meets This Town narrative, a New York Times bestselling author tells the story of the creation of a massive tax break, in which political and economic elites attend to the care and feeding of the super-rich, and inequality compounds.

David Wessel's incredible tale of how Washington works-and why the rich keep getting richer-starts when a Silicon Valley entrepreneur develops an idea intended as a way to help poor people that will save rich people money on their taxes. He organizes and pays for an effective lobbying effort that pushes his idea into law with little scrutiny or fine-tuning by congressional or Treasury tax experts-and few safeguards against abuse. With an unbeatable pair of high-profile sponsors, bumper-sticker simplicity and deft political marketing, the Opportunity Zone became an unnoticed part of the 2017 Trump tax bill.

The gold rush followed immediately thereafter.

David Wessel follows the money to see who profited from this plan that was supposed to spur development of blighted areas and help people out of poverty: the Las Vegas strip, the Portland (Oregon) Ritz-Carlton, the Mall of America, and self-storage facilities-lucrative areas where the one percent can park money profitably and avoid capital gains taxes. And the best part: unlike other provisions for eliminating capital gains taxes (inheritance, for example) you don't have to die to take advantage of this one.

Wessel provides vivid portraits of the proselytizers, political influencers, motivational speakers, consultants, real estate dealmakers, and individual money-seekers looking to take advantage of this twenty-first century bonanza. He looks at places for which Opportunity Zones were supposedly designed (Baltimore, for example) and how little money they've drawn. And he finds a couple of places (Erie, PA) where zones are actually doing what they were supposed to, a lesson on how a better designed program might have helped more left-behind places. But what Wessel reveals is the gritty reality: The dark underbelly of a system tilted in favor of the few, with the many left out in the cold

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“A must-read for anyone who wants to really understand how an idea can in time become a law—with the help of a large budget, skilled lobbying, and the support of a few key members of Congress. I thought I knew a bit about how Washington works, but I learned an enormous amount from David Wessel’s very carefully researched and extremely well written book.”—David M. Rubenstein, cofounder and co-executive chairman of The Carlyle Group and author of How to Lead
“In Only the Rich Can Play, David Wessel masterfully makes policy wonkery into a riveting story. A cautionary tale of good intentions gone bad, it is a must read, from Wall Street to Main Street.” —Arthur C. Brooks, professor, Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School, and New York Times–bestselling author
“David Wessel is a Washington treasure, and anything he writes is a must-read as far as I’m concerned. In Only the Rich Can Play, Wessel marries the depth of his understanding of economics with his years of experience as a Washington reporter and his skill at storytelling. He traces the origins of the Opportunity Zone tax break from conception to birth and then shows how it actually works (or not) on the ground. This is both a great read and an important one because it shows those of us outside Washington how things really work there.” —Bryan Burrough, coauthor of Barbarians at the Gate and Forget the Alamo
“David Wessel has long been one of the keenest observers of the American economy. This book shows his remarkable ability to combine intellectual meat with compelling narrative. Many Silicon Valley moguls are politically clueless, but Sean Parker of Napster and Facebook managed to slip his real estate investment scheme—Opportunity Zones—into law, despite almost no support from traditional thought leaders. You should read this book if you want to understand how to get things done in Washington. You should read this book if you want to understand the most important new urban policy in a generation. You should read this book if you just want to be entertained by a terrific political yarn.”—Edward Glaeser, Fred and Eleanor Glimp Professor of Economics, Harvard University
“Vegas, opulent parties, wine-filled dinners. . . . Not since the classic Showdown at Gucci Gulch has tax policy making been this much fun. But look beyond the vivid anecdotes and there’s an important and underappreciated story about a program that will cost the federal treasury billions while helping a fraction of the people Congress intended. Wessel weaves together on-the-ground reporting, the best data and evidence, and deep knowledge of the policy process to show how strong moral convictions, vast wealth, and a turbocharged media presence can run up against entrenched special interests and inadequate vetting. The result, as one interviewee says, is a missed opportunity indeed.” —Tracy Gordon, Urban Institute
“A fascinating and entertaining—albeit at times depressing and infuriating—story of how a major policy initiative came to be. . . . A lesson in how social policy in America should not be made, but too often is, and an explanation of why the rich always seem to win."—Melissa Kearney, Neil Moskowitz Professor of Economics, University of Maryland
“If you want to understand how the US has ended up with a tax code that on paper is progressive but in practice is so regressive that the very wealthy pay virtually no tax, Only the Rich Can Play is the place to start. In his wry style, Wessel uses the story of a tax provision dreamed up by a tech billionaire to show what happens when good intentions and arrogance collide with our tax-avoidance-industrial complex.”—Paul Romer, New York University, Nobel laureate in Economics
“A clearly articulated, maddening case study in how the rich get richer on the backs of the poor.”—Kirkus Reviews
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